How can you create such loyalty to an annual event that folks will trek many miles through melting sun and pouring rain just to be there? What makes them want to schedule it in their vacation plans, returning every year and bringing more friends? For music festivals, great entertainment is the focus, but it’s the festival community that generates such a powerful draw of participants. As I prepare to head out to one of my favorites – Watermelon Park Festival in Berryville, VA – I’m thinking about some of the things that turn a music festival into a community.
A Special Place
Memorable scenery is a powerful element in attracting a return trip to your event. Watermelon Park is on the banks of a slow stretch of the Shenandoah River. Another favorite, Delfest in Cumberland, MD, has the backdrop of the Potomac River’s cake-layered cliff side. In southwestern VA, FloydFest has built beautiful wood beam stages amid the rolling landscape. The location is the backdrop for all of the great memories for you fans.
Most of the festivals I have been to have a volunteer program where you can get your ticket in exchange for some hours of service, such as at the gates, parking, trash and recycling. While this is often a great deal for students, I think that the majority of volunteers do it for the experience of community, making friends and helping the festival they love. Most festivals simply could not succeed without a good volunteer program
Make Participation Happen
It’s not enough just to encourage participation at your event. For it to really succeed, you need to reach out and make it happen. Two years ago I noticed that while there were great jamming workshops at Watermelon Park, they were a bit fast for new players. Using the philosophy of my mentor Dr. Banjo, I knew that a lot of beginning players just need one good experience jamming with others in order to get rolling and joining in other jams. I asked the organizers if they would sponsor my idea, they liked it, and the Bluegrass Slow Jam was born. I lead the group in standard tunes at a moderate pace and make a lot of new friends in the process. The first year it drew over 30 pickers and it has been growing ever since.
Access to the Professionals
At roots music festivals, there are often no barriers between the artists and fans. The band will often invite folks to “shake and howdy” at the merch table, and while sure they would love to sell you a CD and get your email on their mailing list, they are also open to your questions and comments, signing your CD’s or maybe a picture. I’ve seen huge lines of fans at Rhonda Vincent’s tour bus, and she stays to see each one of them personally. Many festivals schedule events on smaller side stages, such as Q&A mixed with an intimate performance. Some like Delfest Academy and Rockygrass go so far as to organize pre-festival classes with the pros (separate ticket). While the bands usually need to get right back on the road, it’s also not uncommon to find them picking around a friend’s campfire later that night.
These are some of the things that have made music festivals so special to me – how about you? Are there things you could add to my list? How about other types of festivals – what special things have you seen that make a festival into a community?